We can conjure this effect of smoke and mirrors in many ways. Perhaps we set the tale, wholly fictional, in a real location and cram it with authentic detail. In Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories - set in Oxford, England - the reader can sit on the actual chair at the Turf Tavern where the characters - and Morse himself - once sat. The chair is real. So the story must be too...
Or we interweave the story with genuine events, as witness Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.
Or we present our story, wickedly, as non-fiction. Paul Kavanagh’s thriller Such Men Are Dangerous was accepted by many readers as the dramatised autobiography of a real CIA agent, until it was exposed as a publisher’s hoax. Defoe’s chilling A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was widely believed at the time to be an eye-witness account but is entirely fictional.
Or we can hint at a back story or prequel to the tale. The characters appear to have some independent existence in an alternative world that persists outside the story. In Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels, we continually bump against allusions, only half explained, to her complex past. Conclusion: this lady is four-dimensional. She’s real.
Alternatively, we can create a ‘ghost plot’.
|Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com|
Draft two narrative threads - a main plot and a sub-plot. They have their own characters and settings. Optionally, they might be set in different time periods. Give each a complementary theme. And interweave those stories so that each one acts as an ironic chorus or commentary on the other. For example:
Main story: A modern couple are planning a grand church wedding. Crisis succeeds crisis. The bride’s mother interferes so much that it seems the marriage will never take place.
Ghost plot: Flash back to the 18th century. The celebrated clock maker Joseph Knibb is trying to finish an expensive time-piece commissioned by an absent-minded lord. Every week, the lord bustles in and changes the design. Knibb pulls his hair in despair. Finally, he brings out the design he suggested at the start, which his patron had dismissed.
Now the lord loves it. What a brilliant new concept, he says. So original! Knibb is a genius...
Switch back to the main plot: The bride puts her foot down. They’ll hold their wedding in a supermarket, she says. The mother beams. What a brilliant new concept! So original! Her child is a genius...
The two plots echo each other, yet they are wholly unrelated except by theme.
Should we link those plots in the final episode? Could we have the bridegroom give his bride a wedding gift - a family heirloom which turns out to be the fabled clock of Joseph Knibb? That would tie the threads together in a neat ironic close.
But it’s not necessary.
The reader will still detect the resonance of themes in the two self-contained stories and, if they’re well told, will smile at the timeless perversity of human nature. Whether or not the plots are linked, the story has acquired depth.
In summary, an unusual way to make your tale appear multi-dimensional is to run a separate story - a ghost plot - behind the main narrative. It’s immaterial whether the stories are linked in any direct or causal way. The ghost plot exists primarily to create an illusion of depth, the irrational sense that we are glimpsing a world that exists by itself, outside of the story space.
It’s autonomous and real.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: